Can the winter flu shot be taken with the COVID vaccine? Experts say yes

A doctor has warned that South Africans in high-risk groups should take steps to ensure they receive both the influenza (flu) vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to the public.

Dr Lungi Nyathi, AfroCentric Group’s managing executive, told IOL that the flu shot remains important for optimal protection against severe illness and/or hospitalisation during the approaching winter months.

“Although getting a flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19, there is still a benefit to being vaccinated against the flu: The flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the impact of related morbidity and hospitalisation, which is useful as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Nyathi.

This comes amid growing concerns of South Africa’s looming third wave of the coronavirus and South Africa’s slow vaccine rollout.

Flu vaccine to provide ‘optimal protection’

According to recommendations published by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases NICD for influenza management, the seasonal flu that usually makes its way around during the winter months is one of the main causes of pneumonia or lower respiratory tract infections (LRTI).

In recent years, annual flu epidemics have resulted in an estimated 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290 000 to 650 000 deaths globally.

Luckily, last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed that in the temperate zones of the southern hemisphere, the influenza season did not commence. But, that does not mean that flu vaccinations, especially in high-risk groups, are not important this year:

“Due to the ongoing strain the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on our healthcare workers and facilities, any steps we can individually take to prevent ourselves from becoming sick are important. The flu can be more serious than just a runny nose and sore throat for many people, who often end up hospitalised as a result. Getting the flu vaccine is a key step towards preventing this, and reserving healthcare resources for those who need it most,” Nyathi explained further.

How to administer the COVID-19 and flu vaccine

Since it is likely that the flu vaccination season will start around the same time as phase two of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout – it is important to know that administration of the two vaccines should be staggered.

At this point, there is no scientific evidence to support the safety or harm of simultaneous administration of the flu and COVID-19 vaccines.

However, experts recommend that there be at least a two-week gap between receiving one vaccine and the other to ensure that a sufficient immune response is mounted after administration of each vaccine. Also make sure that your healthcare provider is informed of your vaccination history.

In light of this, the National Department of Health (NDoH) has recommended prioritising particular groups of people to receive the flu vaccine. The NICD has indicated that the flu vaccine programme this year will prioritise the same groups as those prioritised last year:

  • It is mandatory for all healthcare workers to be vaccinated
  • Individuals aged over 65 years
  • Individuals with cardiovascular disease (including chronic heart disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes) and chronic lung disease (including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • People living with HIV and Aids
  • Pregnant women

“Prioritising those at greatest risk, we will ensure that as many people who need the flu vaccine receive it and that the country’s health resources are used to the greatest effect,” said Dr Nyathi.

Watch: Myth Debunked – Vaccines against influenza can protect against COVID-19